Over at Camels with Hammers, my friend Dan has an interesting post up about the wall-of-separation distinction that Thomas Jefferson made famous. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Jefferson said there should be a "wall of separation" between the state and any church, so that no religious dogma should be imposed on others through the force of law. Given Europe's civil wars that were sparked (and in many cases still are sparked) by religious partisanship, I think he was really onto something. Guns and God simply don't mix well.
Back to Dan's post. He lays out an argument usually (mis)attributed to Thomas Jefferson. The heart of said argument:
Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of toher faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the wall of separation between church and state, therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
Dan wants to sidestep the various debates over whether Thomas Jefferson actually thought this, whether this view is reflected in America's First Amendment guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof," whether the other Founding Fathers would have agreed with him, etc. Dan is a philosopher, and so he's interested in the argument. Setting aside politics, do we think it is moral for one side to impose their view on the others. Which is a fair enough point, and one I actually agree with. Too often we get tied up in what boils down (as Dan points out) to an appeal to authority. Forgetting the legality, what do we think about the underlying principle? So let's focus on that. Here's how Dan frames the issue:
On what moral grounds do you think you have the right to tell me to pray through a proclamation, lead me in prayer at a civic ceremony, tax me to subsidize your church activities and your clergy's provisions, teach your religious interpretation of science in the schools secular kids also attend, marginalize me by declaring my country "Christian" when I am not, deny gay people the rights to marry or serve in the military, prevent teenagers and young adults from getting adequate knowledge about safe sex because of your religious views about sex, etc.?
There's so much about this that I agree with. Especially toward the end. What self-respecting liberal, in the wake of DADT's repeal, wouldn't roil against the idea of anyone trying to force servicemen back into the closet. (And after the recent GOP debate. the alternative definitely seems like it's on the wrong side of history. The bit about sex education is similarly hard to resist, as that's a personal hot topic of mine. I feel very strongly that no one's belief has the right to interfere with the education of someone who doesn't subscribe to that belief, or at least whose parents' don't.
But Dan goes further than that. The bit that really caught me offguard – and which I do not agree with – is the first part: this claim that religious people have no right to have a religious invocation at a public ceremony. I assume he's talking about the recent 9/11 commemorations where no clergy took part in an official capacity, as he's recently blogged about how that was the right call. (Sadly, I still haven't found the time to read that one beyond the title, though I have it bookmarked.)
What bothers me about this is part of what Dan is objecting to in the above-quoted paragraph is the idea that atheists aren't real Americans. That's why he is so insulted by the "Christian nation" characterization of America. (I'm insulted, too, since I find that an affront to my identity as an American if not as a Christian.) But, at least for me, having a clergyman take part in a public ceremony is not saying anything about the identity of the body politic or about any individual at that ceremony. It is saying that many people present would find a clergyman's words meaningful. I have a hard time seeing that that's controversial, even in New York – for all our reputation as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, New York does have many thriving faith communities, as the recent struggle over gay marriage illustrated. I don't think that having a prayer offered at a memorial means that atheists have to pray. If you don't believe in God, hearing those words certainly won't hurt you. But for those people who are religious, having a prayer included would have affirmed a part of their identity that is important to them. In many ways, it's very similar to what Dan wants, when he rejects the idea that America is a Christian nation because that means he's not truly part of America.
See, there's a big difference between enacting a law based on theology as opposed to honoring the fact that many people in your culture find the religious metaphor and rituals meaningful. I'm very much against the latter, for all the reasons Dan mentions and a few others that are uniquely my own as well. But just like the atheist wants to be part of the larger American culture, I think the religious person also wants to feel like what's important to her is welcome in public and not just in private. Not in the sense of requiring others to believe it as well; but certainly welcome as an ingredient in the melting-pot. That is what the wall of separation requires, IMO. I can't require you to believe a certain thing, or profess to it; but that doesn't mean you get to expect me to be quiet about how I believe it. Often, when I am at a public event that I am invited to but where my religious identity isn't welcome, I feel like a big part of me isn't welcome either. It actually reminds me of that line in the old song: long-haired hippy freaks need not apply. It feels like, if I want to be a part of it all, I have to hide something that's important to me. And while I want my non-religious friends and my friends who don't particularly care one way or the other to be comfortable at such events, I want to be comfortable as well. If you're putting together a ceremony that's supposed to be meaningful for a group, and what's meaningful to me isn't included, do you really expect me to feel welcomed?
Towards the end of his post, Dan alludes to a popular idea, that religion should be a private, personal thing. He writes, Do you believe it is less peaceful to leave people to their own private, serious inquiries about religion without public favoritism by the government to any one side of the question? The trouble is, while theology may be a more or less private affair, religious practice is. I don't just stop being a Christian when I leave the church and step into the academy or anywhere else, though I may stop assuming those people around me will have a uniquely religious frame of reference. It is part of who I am just like I imagine (say) a Latino would carry that frame of reference with him even when he's not in a specifically Hispanic subculture. If you wanted to make him feel part of a celebration you would let him honor that – even if you wouldn't expect his Irish-American or Korean-American friend to join in with the celebration in the same way. For me, my religion is like that. It's definitely not something I can just turn off.
So: I'm all for this wall of separation stuff. But I think we can make room for the religious in the public square, and need to – otherwise they're likely to collect up their toys and head back home. Which some people may actually prefer(!), but if you want a strong public square to begin with, I think it needs to be welcoming to everyone – and that may mean giving them the room to honor what's important to them, even if you don't particularly like it.
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